The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg was founded by Catherine the Great through acquisitions of individual works of art and whole collections on the European market. She created this imperial Russian gallery between 1764 and 1782 almost from nothing. In that time, she herself never left Russia and the formation of her picture gallery depended heavily on educated and enthusiastic agents based in Europe. 
Although Catherine later relied on foreign advisers, it was Russian travellers and diplomats who shaped the foundation of her Hermitage and its early development. One of the most important of these was Prince Dmitry Golitsyn, who negotiated the purchase in Brussels in 1768 of the collection of Count Charles Cobenzl, ministre plénipotentiare of the Austrian rulers of the Southern Netherlands. Golitsyn was but the youngest and newest of an elite group of Russians who encouraged Catherine to commission works of art and to assemble an art collection worthy of any European ruler, one that could contribute to the aesthetic education of nobles at the Russian court and provide models for new generations of home-grown artists. Inspired by what they saw in Europe, it was they who persuaded Catherine of the importance of art not only for a ruler’s prestige and propaganda but for the broader improvement and enlightenment of a country. To this day, the paintings and drawings purchased from Charles Cobenzl in Brussels, are part of the collections of the Hermitage Picture Gallery and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
Dr Catherine Phillips is an independent art historian who has collaborated on projects with the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg since 1994. Currently coordinating a project to publish the museum’s scholarly catalogues of European art in English, her own research concentrates on collecting practices in Russia – and by Russians outside Russia – in the eighteenth century. She has a particular interest in Brussels in the eighteenth century and its pivotal role in international relations.